Back to Basics

It sounds so simple that we might be tempted to brush past these few sentences, on our way to more pithy and profound instructions. “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” (James 5:13) Why would James bother telling us to do something that would come naturally anyway– don’t we usually pray when we are in trouble and sing God’s praises when we are happy? Yeah sure, except that very often we don’t actually do those things at all, and I have to join Big-Brother James in wondering why.

Throughout his letter to all us Christ-followers, James has been underlining the fact that real faith shows itself through actions. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (James 2:14) It is no use to walk through your days saying you believe God’s Word, if everything that your life produces says otherwise. I can protest up and down and until every last cow comes home that I am a Christ-follower, but unless I am actually trusting His will, choosing to obey Him, allowing the Spirit to transform my nature to His likeness more and more, I’m only an imitation. Along the lines of a store mannequin dressed up in a lovely outfit, and unarguably devoid of life.

But of course James uses word pictures that are more sensible to his first-century listeners when he points out that what flows from a man reveals what he actually believes in his heart. “My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (James 3:12) So for James, those simple instructions to pray or praise are making some important observations about the heart: namely, that in all the varying circumstances of life, the person who is trusting God as the Maker and Ruler will turn to Him in response as naturally as a fig tree bears figs. And like fig trees, this is a growth process, something that we are learning to do with every new situation we face. Something we must cultivate carefully, and watch out for the roots of distrust and self-will that get in the way of prayer and praise. No matter how far along you are, you have to keep returning to this simple everyday caretaking of the heart.

“Whenever you face trials of every kind…” you should know Who to ask for wisdom and strength, and you can even “consider it pure joy because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (James 1:2-3) When life is beautiful you should understand that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17) See, it’s not about how upstanding you look to the casual observer, but about Who has captured your heart. James is talking about replacing a list of regulations with a living, breathing love relationship. Whether we are grieving, or confused, or rejoicing over good news, we are invited to share our hearts completely with our Friend and Savior. And where the Spirit of God breathes through a man, flowing out in trust and prayer and praise, there is faith and a fresh spring of Life that lasts forever.

Here at the end of his letter, James is reminding us of basic instructions for everyday life in the Kingdom of God. To pray when we are in trouble. To praise and give thanks when we are blessed. To respond to the prompting of the Spirit of God Who lives in us and points our hearts ever and only to the Father. To “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) in Christ. From here James’ letter can turn quite naturally to the complexities of life in the Family of God, where we are taking part in one another’s growth and healing, in beautiful ways. But first things first.

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“Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to Him, for God is our refuge.” (Psalm 62:8)

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“I know the night won’t last
Your Word will come to pass
My heart will sing Your praise again
Jesus, You’re still enough
Keep me within Your love
My heart will sing Your praise again

Your promise still stands
Great is Your faithfulness, faithfulness
I’m still in Your hands
This is my confidence, You never failed me yet…”

(Do It Again, Elevation Worship)

Resurrecting

We don’t really celebrate Easter as a family,” my friend told me with a shrug that seemed just a little bit regretful. I immediately stopped what I was doing and sat down to hear more. And as she recounted bits and pieces of her childhood, memories of fasting and rules that made little sense to a child, rituals “that probably had some symbolism to them,” readings to commemorate Jesus’ death…. it seemed pretty clear why she had left it behind long ago. “It was all a rather solemn affair,” she concluded, shaking her head.

But here in the middle of Passion Week, with fresh graves still crying out, and people we love fighting hard against this frail mortality, I wonder how a person can manage to  live without looking forward to that one gloriously empty Garden Tomb at the end of the week. Jesus crucified has shown Himself to be Lord and Savior resurrected, and what we think we know about the world suddenly rearranges itself. This is the crux of the Good News. As Paul wrote to the early believers, everything we believe and do hinges on the events of this one weekend. The Resurrection is a reality that blazes bright in the middle of all our darkness, the proof of who Jesus is and what He accomplished for us– a lighthouse pointing us toward Hope and Home. I always thought of Easter as a day to celebrate, I tell her, because Jesus rose again…

And Jesus told His followers that death is only the prelude to life: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives.” (John 12:24) We see it in gardens everywhere, and the Garden in the Beginning where death crept in was already looking forward to Life flooding from the Garden Tomb. So we come to Easter with hearts full of joy, for the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is changing us day by day, His power healing and restoring what was broken– new life springing up everywhere, with much more to come. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (2 Corinthians 2:9) Because Easter is not really a commemoration at all, but a victory celebration.

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“…let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies….
But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53,57-58)

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The fear that held us now gives way
To Him who is our peace;
His final breath upon the cross
Is now alive in me!
Your name, Your name
Is victory–
All praise, will rise
To Christ, our king.
By Your spirit I will rise
From the ashes of defeat;
The resurrected King, is resurrecting me.
In Your name I come alive
To declare Your victory:
The resurrected King, is resurrecting me.”
(Resurrecting, Elevation Worship)

Up Abraham’s Mountain

When Big-Brother James lays it out like he does, it is as plain as any road sign, and we’re all shaking our heads over how easy it is for us to lose sight of the simple Truth: faith and actions are entwined the way body and spirit are, and together they make up the life of a Christ-follower. Ignore either, and you are as lifeless as a corpse. It’s sad how in our sincere desire to be good we can detour off the path into wanting to be good enough or better than, until we find ourselves halfway up a useless tower with a hammer in our hands. It’s as if we’d never even heard the words of the ancient song, ” Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain…” (Psalm 127:1) And it’s just as likely that we will veer into a careless swamp of familiarity with Grace that lets us indulge our emotions, our desires above obedience to God’s ways. James is warning us that both are the subtle bent of the Enemy. How tragically ironic that among the ranks of the gloriously Born Again there would be those who are walking dead and deceived.

No wonder Jesus can state unequivocally that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) That may sound narrow-minded to modern ears, but He is only stating the facts, that you can spout all kinds of knowledge about God and build ministries that impress people, and still be dead as a doornail inside. Obedience that springs from a trusting heart is the only proof-positive of genuine faith. It’s as simple as that, and the signs of Resurrection Life in a person are that obvious: “… every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit….Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:17, 20) Big-Brother James challenges us to recognize fruit for what it is, and keep a close watch on our lives and on the Family of God in which we live. He warns, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom…”(James 2:12)

We might not be so surprised at the way real faith manifests itself, if we think back to the Beginning. Eve looked long at the beautiful fruit, and listened to what the Enemy whispered about it… let the doubts grow in her mind that maybe God was taking something good away from her, and maybe He did not have her best interests at heart, and maybe if she wanted to get what she desired she should reach out and take initiative, show herself strong and intelligent and capable of plotting her own course in life. She let emotion and desire grow large, and when she acted she revealed what she truly believed. But just because you stake your life on something doesn’t make it true, and even a woman made with God’s own hands can lose sight of His love. We’ve been following in her footsteps ever since, captive to our ancestry in both our living and our dying.

So James holds up heroes for us as examples of real faith; Abraham and Rahab both faced the same tangle of emotions that Eve had– the same strength of desire, the same confusion about God’s intentions. And their choices also revealed what they truly believed, because they stepped out in blind obedience, trusting that His Words were true no matter what their circumstances were screaming. In their hearts, faith was both proven and strengthened by their choices to obey; in their actions, obedience was an offering of worship to God as Maker and Ruler. They declared Him powerful and just and righteous when they held onto His promises instead of their desires. They declared His glory when they valued Him over family and home and culture. They declared His right to rule by following when it didn’t make sense, by trusting the future to His plans. “And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend.” (James 2:23)

And isn’t that what Jesus did for us in His suffering? He came to earth in order to obey God fully– in every confusing and painful circumstance, against every opposition, in spite of every human emotion He had. He trusted hard and said “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (Mark 14:36) And He looked forward to our trusting obedience and the righteousness He was providing for us, and He called us friends who would follow His example. He proved once and for all that obedience is the best way– the only way– to demonstrate what we truly believe.

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“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

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“As I walk into the days to come,
I will not forget what You have done,
For you have supplied my every need
And Your presence is enough for me.
Doesn’t matter what I feel,
Doesn’t matter what I see,
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me.
Now I’m casting out all fear
For Your love has set me free;
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me.”
(Your Promises, Elevation Worship)

 

Not My Will, but Thine

In the middle of Lent, and thinking about the Savior’s face set toward the cross. And all these burdens we carry seem so small and yet still so heavy, for they are all part of the same weight of sin in this world– the weight He carried for us, to do away with once and for all. Can we not have patience to watch and wait with Him in these long night hours, carrying our small pieces of His great burden, knowing that the Resurrection Day is coming soon? Because He has promised that there is beauty in His plans, and the redemption of all things.

The writer of Hebrews urges us to keep our eyes on Jesus, to watch our Champion and follow His example in both living and dying. He says plainly that this is our pattern and our privilege: “Because of the joy awaiting Him, He endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now He is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility He endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up.  After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin.” (Hebrews 12:2-3) Who are we then, to be reluctant to trust God with our own circumstances? As if they were somehow more difficult, or we were more unique in our experience so that we could not pray with Jesus, “Thy will be done.”

In writing about trust, and the way Jesus prayed, a well-known preacher observed that “If we can’t say ‘Thy will be done’ from the bottom of our hearts, we will never know any peace. We will feel compelled to try to control people and control our environment and make things the way we believe they ought to be. Yet to control life like this is beyond our abilities, and we will just dash ourselves upon the rocks….to pray ‘Thy will be done’ is to submit not only our wills to God but even our feelings, so that we do not become despondent, bitter, and hardened by the things that befall us.” (Prayer, Tim Keller)

May we follow in Your footsteps toward the cross, Lord, lifting our trusting hearts up to You, along with whatever circumstances we are carrying. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

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“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12-13)

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“Walking around these walls
I thought by now they’d fall
But You have never failed me yet
Waiting for change to come
Knowing the battle’s won
For You have never failed me yet….

I’ve seen You move, come move the mountains
And I believe, I’ll see You do it again
You made a way, where there was no way
And I believe, I’ll see You do it again

Your promise still stands
Great is Your faithfulness, faithfulness
I’m still in Your hands
This is my confidence, You’ve never failed me yet.”
(Do It Again, Elevation Worship)

Real Life. Real Faith. Real Journey.

An ancient Chinese philosopher said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” He was right in so many ways, and I keep thinking that if Big-Brother James had ever heard that now-famous saying, he probably would have paraphrased it to say that the life of faith begins with a single step of obedience. Not being the kind of man to sugar-coat anything, he is likely to warn you that the journey will be difficult, and you should not expect otherwise. But he would also be quick to point out– and this is what makes you want to keep on reading– that the rewards of the journey far outweigh any hardship along the way. All the single steps of faith are adding up into something wonderful under God’s watchful eyes and guiding hand.

What James actually says, is “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4) He’s already looking ahead to where that first single step is going to take you, which makes sense if he is thinking about the journey being a rough one. It is wise to count the cost, to judge the value of the journey by its lasting benefit. In this case he declares any obstacles well-worth-it for the sake of arriving Whole and Healed at last. But just in case any of his readers are feeling cautious about committing fully (and can you really blame them for hesitating to follow in the footsteps of a Man who was tortured to death?), James reminds them that life’s entire journey is only a prelude to the Real Life ahead. Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12)

Looking at that big picture, any one of us would declare our full intention to hang in there and finish the race, to claim the prize of Everlasting Life. And none of us would have any intention of giving up what we believe. Maybe a better question is What are we willing to do in order to persevere in our faith? What is the step right in front of us?

Because James isn’t talking about some abstract set of beliefs. James is intent on making our faith-journey real in the everyday. As he puts it, “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17) From his perspective, the next step is always one of real life obedience. He’s talking to real people like us, struggling with circumstances we all experience…with our desires…with our emotions. And a real God who can help us deal with them in a way that brings growth, if we are willing to do the hard work of applying what we say we believe. The Church-planter Paul agreed, and knew how easy it is to get discouraged in the daily small things. He included himself in his pep-talk to others: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) This is what perseverance is really all about, and it lives and dies in the small individual steps of Today:

Will I choose to be joyful and patient when circumstances stink, because I believe God is growing me to maturity through them?

Will I stop to ask God for His wisdom and guidance, instead of trying to figure out this problem by myself, because I believe His ways are better?

Will I set my mind on His promises amid the wind and waves of my emotions, because I know He is unchanging and true?

Can I set aside time to pursue knowing God more, despite basketball schedules, the movie that is on the DVR, and posting the latest on Instagram, because my relationship with Him is more valuable than anything else?

Can I lay down my fears for the future and rest in my Maker’s provision of daily bread?

Can I resist the pull of possessions in the face of marketing and peer pressure and the whining of my children, because there is no significance or security to be found in Stuff?

Can I choose to be content with whatever Jesus gives me in this life, because He is weaving it all together for my eternal good?

Will I face honestly the bottomless pit of wanting in my heart, and all the destructive ways it seeks to have More? Have the courage to just say no?

Will I trust that God is who He says He is: unchanging goodness, faithfulness, perfection, light itself? In every situation, even when I don’t understand what He’s doing?

Will I bite back the angry careless words and instead say words that heal and encourage? Forgive that person one more time and seventy-times-seven? Trust God with the safety and happiness of the people I love? Champion the outcast and the needy?

James includes all these in his letter, in a heartfelt plea for us to put our faith into action. You can say you believe in God all you want, but it is the path you take that proves Who you are following after. Paul expands on the subject with more theological depth, and from him we know that it is the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit that enables us to walk by faith. He explains that Christ’s very nature will sprout up in us as we obey Him and walk hand-in-hand with Him. Paul goes so far as to say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

And if I will live the Christ-life, choose to act out what I believe over and over again– day after day for a lifetime, and against the world’s current that flows in the opposite direction– someday I will step right through the door into Eternal Life, still following in the footsteps of Jesus.

But for Today, all that is required is to take the next step…

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“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

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“When the weight of the world begins to fall,
On the Name of Jesus I will call;
For I know my God is in control
and His purpose is unshakable.

Doesn’t matter what I feel;
Doesn’t matter what I see;
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me.
Now I’m casting out all fear,
For Your love has set me free;
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me.

As I walk into the days to come,
I will not forget what You have done;
For you have supplied my every need
And Your presence is enough for me…
You will always be more than enough for me.”
(Your Promises, Elevation Worship)

 

Three Cheers for Hanging in There

I have always thought perseverance is the boring virtue. I mean, let’s face it: Is this how I want people to remember me at the end of my life, as “a woman who hung in there“? Perseverance seems way too drab and uninspiring. Keeping on with the everyday of what you’ve been given, and then doing it all again tomorrow. Even when it’s hard. Even when no one notices. Even when it’s not where you want to be.  Perseverance is a slow steady progress that is easy to disparage.

It’s like in Aesop’s old story about the tortoise and the hare, where the fast hare is so confident in his abilities to win that he doesn’t even take the race seriously. And really, who wants to be like the tortoise in the story? No one wants to keep plodding along slow and steady when there are others out there flashing by, to the cheers of the crowd. (And wouldn’t we all rather have life come easily, with plenty of time to play in the meadow and take naps?) Sure, the tortoise won the race, but it wasn’t even through any skill or cleverness or strength on his part. All he had to do was keep on going. Anyone could have beaten the hare with that kind of mindset. But of course that is precisely the point. You can have all kinds of impressive skills, but it means nothing if it makes you careless and distracted. Confidence and charm are pointless if you are going to quit running in favor of indulging yourself, before you hit the finish line. In the long run the character quality of perseverance counts more than buckets of talent and ability, and not just in results. God says it’s actually a matter of who you are becoming on the inside.

Specifically, God says dull old perseverance is a building block of our character. When life gets tough and we find that things don’t come naturally to us, we get to choose whether to run away or to face the pain and let Him use it to grow us. James tells us with the straightforwardness of a Big-Brother, “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4) Any parent knows that without a worthwhile goal and a plan to get there, hanging on is nothing more than stubbornness. But perseverance is the holding-on strength that gets us to the end God has in mind for us, one step at a time– and James says the result is beautiful. “Count it all joy” because you know the Father is good, and has good things in mind for you.  Paul describes God’s work in us this way: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory….” Transformation is a long slow life-long race, and we will feel like giving up more often than not, but hanging in there is what enables God to do His glorious work inside.

Perseverance moves you to give grace to that person and try to communicate better, to work together, instead of walking away….even though your heart is hurting. Because healthy relationships matter.

Perseverance inspires you to clean up one more mess….drag yourself out of bed one more time….listen to one more story of playground drama… when what you really want is just eight solid hours of sleep, or a quiet cup of coffee on the porch. Because you know they are worth it.

Perseverance is what keeps you praying long and hard until you have God’s answer. No matter how long it takes. Because you trust His love and His power and His timing.

Perseverance pushes you to face another day of the same old thing: of errands and phone calls and workday and chores that will need to be done again tomorrow. Because these hidden acts of service laid down with love and prayer are building a home and nurturing lives that will last beyond this world.

And it comes by the Holy Spirit at work in us with His power, just like all the other virtues. I need the help, because my own determination wears out after awhile, especially when life gets difficult and complicated. The older I get, the more I value the simple virtue of slow and steady progress– being willing to make many small right choices over and over again, with God’s help, through the changing circumstances of life. It requires unwavering trust that all those smaller, more boring choices are adding up to something wonderful just because God says so. It is simple obedience in the everyday, according to James. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (James 1:22) Hang in there and keep on going. As old Aesop the storyteller said, “slow and steady wins the race.” And this Faith-race above all, is worth winning.

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“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12)

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“Thank You for the wilderness
Where I learned to thirst for Your presence
If I’d never known that place
How could I have known You are better?

Thank You for the lonely times
When I learned to live in the silence
As the other voices fade
I can hear You calling me, Jesus

And it’s worth it all just to know You more

You’ve done great things
Jesus, Your love never fails me
My soul will sing, You have done great things”
(Elevation Worship)

Faith for Whatever Lies Ahead

In this world of so many things gone wrong that we cannot fix, uncertain outcomes, unpredictable circumstances, sometimes all you want is assurances to hang onto. Super-powers would be nice, but I would settle for a burning bush, or fiery chariots, or a shepherd’s rod that can turn into a snake. In our small group we sometimes joke about how neon signs would be helpful when we go looking for direction and assurance, but the joking is just a cover-up for a little bit of frustration and a very real fear that we might get left on our own.  

I think how I might cheerfully throw myself at new under-takings, could bravely face the unknown, if I only had a fleece like Gideon did, letting me know for sure that God’s power was overshadowing me and everything would turn out well. But then I realize how crazy that sounds, because I have seen a fleece in real life: a shaggy, raggedy thing of indeterminate color, and smelling to high heaven when wet. Gideon’s confidence-booster was not very impressive when you take a good look at it– no more significant than any of the things I might hang onto as divine signposts, and isn’t it funny how seriously we wish for them to help us out? Especially when Jesus says to Gideon and to us, “I will be with you….I will stay…” (Judges 6:16,18) Shouldn’t the promise of the Almighty be sufficient?

When I really think about it, what made the fleece significant was the concrete evidence of God living and active, reaching down into the gritty everyday details of a farmer’s life. Because that is what Gideon needed to know most of all– that he was not alone and that there was a God who could work in the many situations Gideon could not control….things like where the dew fell… and who lived and died…and the future of his family. Isn’t that what we all need to know, when it comes right down to it? No wonder we are so keen about that smelly bit of wool.

God was very patient with Gideon’s need to see with his own eyes, touch the wet wool with his own fingers, smell the evidence of divine power with his own nose. But then, Gideon was just meeting the Almighty for the first time, had nothing but old stories handed down through generations to inform his faith. And I hold the God-breathed record in my hands, the revelation of who God Is, the inked words of the Word coming in flesh, and I feel ashamed. Why do I sometimes think it would be easier to understand a piece of wool or wood or weather for answers (just because I can touch them and see them) rather than God Himself? If I cannot put my trust in God’s assurances, cannot trust the Spirit who has made His habitation with me, then isn’t looking elsewhere just a fancy word for idolatry? And why would I expect God to indulge my desire for control, especially when it is only an illusion after all? Granted, there is a learning curve in following the Spirit’s leading, and God is still very patient, but sometimes I just need to step out and act on what He has already said, and trust Him for the outcome.

Interestingly, when Gideon saw God face to face, he named Him Jehovah-shalom…The Lord is Peace. There was an old superstition that to see the face of God meant certain death, so when Gideon realized that it was the Lord Himself who had come to visit him, he was sure it was all over. The Lord is Peace came from his relief that God intended good, not ill, for him. That is what stood out to Gideon about the whole encounter. But after the fact, when he was neck-deep in the logistics of leading an army of beaten-down farmers against a superior foe, when the memory of Voice and Fire had blurred at the edges, he needed to know for sure that the calling was true, and the power was real, and the Presence remained. So he pulled out that raggedy fleece and laid it out under the stars, begging God to do all the things he could not, in this very real, very uncertain world; I’m not sure which is more remarkable, that the farmer trusted enough to ask for yet another sign, or that God stooped to touch his dirty rags, or that the Lord’s promise to His people still rings out clear through the centuries: “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Because this is still what we need to know most of all, and God still bends to assure us of His presence: His presence is peace, and He is good, and He is with us. “…Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) No temporary fleece, but a blazing Presence in our hearts, the Living One who is able to control all the things we care about most and are unable to change. “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.'” (2 Corinthians 6:16)  What more do we need?

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“If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.” (James 1:5-8)

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“We assume favor with God means all the details of life fall simply into place. A comfortable life equals achieving insider status. But more than knowing how the future will look, God desires relationship. He knows your name and you have this assurance: ‘My presence will go with you. I’ll see the journey to the end.’

Become certain that you are loved, and life is a secure adventure into uncertainty.” (Shelly Miller)

Faith Is an Action Verb

Choosing a word for the year has become a January practice for some of us. We have learned to approach it with much thought and prayer and anticipation, because by the end of the year it generally looks quite different than we imagined it would play out, and we have found unexpected joy in how God unfolds a desire we offer up to Him. So we take the time to etch our words in ink and metal; we hang them on our walls and around our necks to remind us; we search out His Words and ask for understanding of what He is doing in our hearts. This seeking to grow in our faith-journey is something all us women who gather each week have in common.

So it is with a sense of purpose that we begin our study through James’ letter to the early Christians– God’s purpose, that is– and the full knowledge that we were intended to be here around this table at this particular point in time. I cannot think of more practical and direct advice for Christ-followers on how to live out our faith than James’ no-nonsense big brother approach, and as I begin through this letter once again, I am filled both with anticipation, and the knowledge of how much I have yet to learn.

James wastes no time diving right into “the testing of your faith” (1:3) and drives straightforwardly through to the possibility of straying in our faith and the need to “turn a sinner from the error of his way” (5:19). From his perspective, growing in your faith is neither easy nor optional. When Jesus talks about abiding in Him, we might get the impression that it is more peaceful, like a cottage in the woods with flower vines growing up the front… something quiet and quaint and soothing. Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” (John 15:9)  It sounds like a good place to live.

But in the next verse Jesus explains what abiding means: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” Abiding is obedience. My obedience is a thing that still stutters and halts, along with trust– sometimes quick and joyful, sometimes wrestling with old pain, sometimes bending my thoughts and choices around His mold with all my strength like red-hot metal on the forge. (But I keep following along after You and keep listening for Your voice… “just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”) I can’t think of a better place to live. But it is not quaint and soothing. It is dying.

And all this giving and dying for what? Again, Jesus spells it out for me: “…apart from me you can do nothing….Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you….By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples….As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you….that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full….I have called you friends.” (John 15:5,7-9,11,15) If I am going to grow in love and abide in Christ it will take all my effort and all my desire– no careless living or peaceful existing– and yet ironically it will fill me up with the very things I need the most, the things I absolutely cannot live without.

It seems like too often we try to smooth over how rugged the choice to do right can actually be. Maybe we would rather dabble in Christian circles because we like the company, rather than actually “fight the good fight of the faith.” (1 Timothy 6:12) James is not afraid to confront us with the Truth: the life of faith is not for the cautious or for the coward, because love is an all-out business. “What good is it…if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (James 2:14)  And I can hear Jesus’ words echoing; “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:13-14) Following Christ is going to take everything we have. But it is a choice we will not regret.

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“The abiding believer is the only legitimate believer.”  (John MacArthur)

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“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4)

About the New Year

I keep hearing about resolutions and good habits and starting the New Year off right from every direction, and it all seems quite fitting in the bright first days of the year with the calendar pages still white and clear. There is an energy and ambition to the beginning of a year, and a hope that it will turn out better than last year, or at least different– or maybe make us different people in the process.

But some years look like obstacle courses right off the bat, and it’s hard to look forward to better things when big hard things are staring you in the face. To be honest there have been plenty of years that I wished were over before they began– felt run over and wrung out in the harsh light of everyday circumstances– and I know how hope for Something New can fade, can turn and wither before it even has the chance to bloom. Those blank calendars can look pretty grim with only our griefs and worries written in.

But this is the truth about new years and blank calendars, in Jesus’ own words: “…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34) Considering that He has just finished talking about how His Father provides for every living thing and even counts the hairs on your head, we can confidently add this to our contemplation of tomorrow’s troubles, that each day will also be filled with God’s new mercies. Here’s another truth about new years: we simply do not know what twists and turns of the path they will hold. I never could have predicted the way this past year unfolded, in its sorrows or in its  joys; and maybe I would not have chosen much of it on my own, yet if I had to go back I don’t know if I would give any of it up, either. It’s probably a good thing that the only thing in our circle of control is the immediate present, and all we are asked to do with it is to trust Jesus and to obey His words. One step at a time, one day at a time, and know that God’s resurrection power will bring healing to any troubles we find.

And therein lies yet another truth about new years, that one step leads to another, and it is in the small mundane decisions of everyday life that the course of our year will be determined, as well as the quality of our days. Because no matter whether circumstances are good or bad or indifferent, the choices we make in them are shaping us. The  Wise King warns us to take that responsibility seriously when he says “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” (Proverbs 4:23) In other words, be careful what you grow in your own yard because it’s the place you have to live…and watch where you step. If we are following Jesus, we know the destination will be a good one in the end.

In case you can’t see a happy ending, remember that doesn’t mean there is no such thing. It is God who writes your ending, and you are still in the middle of the story. He is the one who is making beautiful things out of your dust, and your story isn’t finished until He says it is. Looking ahead with hope is just another way of trusting the Author that your story is still in process and that He is the One who is redeeming everything according to His plans. A sister-mentor says it like this: “Hope is not the belief that things will turn out well, but the belief that God is working through all things, no matter how things turn out.” (Ann VosKamp) Whatever else these blank calendar pages will hold, they will all be held in His loving hands, and we will be okay. He promises “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God….” (Isaiah 43:2)

So as I look at this new year and contemplate resolutions, and what one word should I pick as a focal point, the thought that keeps recurring is that Jesus’ presence is all I really need. If I can see His hand at work in each day, and be thankful, then no trouble can truly overwhelm me. If I can hear His voice of wisdom to guide me through what lies ahead, and His own power to give me strength, then I know we will make it through whatever comes, and He will continue to grow and change me. The Prophet Isaiah promises, “Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say, ‘This is the way you should go,’ whether to the right or to the left.” (Isaiah 30:21) So yeah, that is what I want most in this New Year. Spiritual eyes to see Emmanuel, God with us, making all things new, starting with me.

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“I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe Him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated Him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 1:19-20)

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“Looking for the beauty of Christ in the everyday isn’t some quaint exercise in poetry. It’s a critical exercise in not being dead — of being resurrected.” (Ann VosKamp)

Ready for Christmas

There’s nothing that lights up brokenness like the twinkling lights of Christmas. ‘Tis the season to be jolly…with Pinterest-decked-out halls, and the family in matching pajamas on the front of your cards, and your shopping definitely finished by the third week of December. But let’s be honest, some years you just don’t have it in you to watch all the Christmas movies and bubble gaily at parties. It feels a little like maybe you’d be better off on the Island of Misfit Toys, with your chipped paint and limping spirit. And all the traditions and high expectations of the season only serve to underline how you are dragging on behind….might push you to add another present to the pile and turn up the carols, so no one suspects. Doesn’t it make you wonder where we ever got the idea that we need to achieve a certain level of glitter and gaiety before Christmas can come?

But the Prophet Isaiah is lighting up the centuries with his clarion call straight from the mouth of God: “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her sad days are gone and her sins are pardoned.'” (Isaiah 40:1) If ever there were a holiday for the hollow and the worn-weary, it is Christmas: “For I hold you by your right hand— I, the Lord your God. And I say to you, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you.” (Isaiah 41:13) The good news comes ready-or-not to the sheep-herders and the inn-keepers, that the glory of God has come down from heaven to shine in the back alleys and the open fields of everyday life. This is the gift of Christmas, that Christ has come to be with us in whatever we are facing, and bring healing and hope. “When the poor and needy search for water and there is none, and their tongues are parched from thirst, then I, the Lord, will answer them. I…will never abandon them.” (Isaiah 41:17)

Christmas is most of all for the broken and needy, and the Light of the world shines in all His brilliance on everyone who waits patiently for His help. Isaiah records the precious promises of His salvation: “…how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles?…The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.” (Isaiah 40:27-29) We are held, and we are loved, and we don’t need sparkle and shine to cover us up, because the Almighty covers us. Even the Musician-King David is singing of the Messiah’s coming. “He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection.” (Psalm 91:4)

The Gospel writers highlight the prophets’ words over and over, just to prove that God’s promises have all come true in Jesus. Matthew says it as plainly as he knows how: “All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: ‘Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” (Matthew 1:22-23) The events of Christmas were always part of God’s plan, a Light shining down through history from the beginning of time for those who know their need. John bursts into praise at the truth of what he had seen with his own eyes: “The Word gave life to everything that was created, and His life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1:4) This is the miracle of Christmas night, that all God’s promises come true at once, with a woman’s laboring cry and an army of angels singing: “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” (Luke 2:14) To the warring and the broken, the blind and deaf, the bent and the bruised, it is the best news of all. Christ has come, and He will make us whole! The prophet Malachi adds his own joyful note to the ancient songs: “But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings.” (Malachi 4:2)

In this most wonderful time of the year, may our longing for goodness to prevail, for beauty, for peace… drive us only to the Light of the World who is given for us.

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“For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With His love, He will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” (Zephaniah 3:17)

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“More than presents, I long for Your presence to be apparent in all the minutes You give me. I long for Your face to shine upon me. May I define abundance as a manger, strips of cloth, and a place to lay my weary head. ” (Shelly Miller)